Caledonia club takes on ski touring approach

When Jim Burbee thinks about all the improvements he’s overseen as a director of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club over the past two decades to build a world-class nordic skiing facility at Otway Nordic Centre, the list is long.

The big–ticket items – the Rotary Lodge, the biathlon range, the two technical buildings, the maintenance equipment shop  - were necessary improvements that allowed the club to host large-scale events like the 2005 Canadian Cross-Country Championship, 2015 Canada Winter Games and the 2019 World Para Nordic Championships.

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Trail improvements were also required and Burbee, the club’s former director of competitions, had a hand in that as well, using his forestry background to design Race Maze, a series of interconnected and homologated trails built on 70 hectares of private land granted to the club in a land-swap arrangement orchestrated by the provincial government. The club used private donations from the Rickbiel family to install lighting on the trails and combined grants and the World Para-Nordics legacy fund to invest in snowmaking equipment.

All that work by a dedicated group of volunteers and the growing popularity of recreational skiing has created the momentum to build what shaping up to be the largest cross-country skiing club in the province and one of the biggest in Canada, with more than 2,000 members already signed up for the season.

But something in the back of Burbee’s mind told him there was a segment of the city’s cross-country community which haven’t been served by what Otway has to offer. They are the backcountry skiers, whose ski touring roots in the club date back its beginnings in 1957, when it was formed. The backcountry crowd made their own trails in the woods at Tabor Mountain and the former Okanagan Helicopters site, while the alpine/nordic segment of the club broke off to form the Hickory Wing Ski Club in January 1959. Eventually, nordic skiing found a permanent home along Otway Road in time for the 1984-85 season with the opening the nordic centre at its current site, and in 1987 Hickory Wing became the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club.

“There’s still an element of our club that wore knickers and wool socks and leather boots and so we thought we should look at that contingent of our membership,” said Burbee, now the Caledonia club’s director at large.

“We’ve got a pretty good facility for the Lycra skiers but not the wool-sock guys. We’ve got kind of void in our membership that we haven’t done a lot for in the last few years because of our big focus on competitions.”

So Burbee took matters into his own hands and organized a project to build the Ridgerunner trail, a narrow two-kilometre path built to attract skiers who like the challenge of ski touring. He went out daily for a month in the spring on his snowshoes to mark the course with flagging tape and during the summer he and his crew went out with a bulldozer to clear the way. Logs harvested for the new trail were sold to raise money for the club’s cross-country and biathlon racing programs.

“It’s a very scenic trail and it’s going to be fun to ski,” said Burbee. “We threw it out there as a touring trail and we’re going to test it and see what people like. We’ll do some grooming options and see what people prefer. Some people are saying just leave it, we’ll ski on it with just pure snow, and other people are saying we only want classic and some people say they want to skate and classic.”

Ridgerunner connects the Top Dog trail with the Lynx trail that runs down a steep hill into the Northern Lights trail. Caledonia club trails manager Mike Palangio describes the new trail as “rustic,” and because of the elevation changes it’s definitely not for beginners.

 “It’s not as wide (five or six metres) as the rest of our trails,” said Palangio. “There’s a lot of elevation ups and downs and some big turns and it’s a nice jaunt into the woods. It’s more intermediate to advanced level.”

It overlooks the Nechako River and it could be the start of backcountry trail development at Otway. The club has plans for a 15 km network of ski touring trails along Cranbrook Hill as part of its 312-hectare territory. The undeveloped land on the ridge extends as far west at the Greenway Trail and eventually Burbee would like to see touring trails built that far. A touring trail network would lend itself to a 30-kilometre point-to-point loppet race route. An online survey of club members found 97 per cent were in favour of the longer loppet route idea.

“It’s kind of a test for an expanded program,” he said. “We’ve got a licence of occupation for all the places we have trails and we have some extra space to build trails.

“Skiing laps is not the same as having a big point-to-point (race).”

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